Plan to Move Feast of Ascension Is Now in the Vatican's Court

Ascension Sunday, anyone?

That could become a reality in various parts of the United States, depending on the input that the Catholic faithful give their local bishops.

The possibility of moving the traditional Ascension Thursday celebration to the following Sunday moved one step closer after the National Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a proposal that would allow individual ecclesiastical provinces to transfer the feast day.

The proposal was approved Nov. 16, during the conference's annual meeting, by 181 yes votes among eligible Latin-rite bishops in the United States. The plan will be forwarded to the Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments for final approval before it can be implemented, likely in 1999. Vatican approval of the proposal is expected.

The feast of the Ascension celebrates, of course, the return of Christ to the Father in heaven 40 days after his resurrection. Described in two Gospel accounts (Mark 16:19 and Luke 24:50-53) and referenced many times throughout the New Testament (beginning with Acts 1:2), the Ascension is one of the oldest feasts of the Catholic Church, being observed by Christians since well before the fifth century.

Ascension Thursday became one of 10 universal holy days of obligation with the publication of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, and until very recently was observed throughout the United States without exception.

Over the last 10 years, however, proposals to transfer the feast of the Ascension to the Sunday after the traditional Thursday observance have enjoyed increasing support among a majority of U.S. bishops, but until this year, the measure failed to win the two-thirds plurality necessary for approval. Throughout these years, moreover, the debate on retention vs. transfer of the Ascension observance has been drawn almost entirely along East-West lines.

Bishops from the Eastern United States have tended to favor retention of the Ascension Thursday tradition. They point to the strong Scriptural arguments for placing the Ascension exactly 40 days after Easter, and to the significance of Pentecost falling exactly 10 days after the Ascension. Noting the Mass attendance on that day in many of their territories approaches that of Sundays, they feel the inconvenience put on priests who must offer the additional Masses midweek is not excessive.

Most Western bishops have disagreed with the demographic arguments. Noting that there is no secular counterpart to Ascension Thursday as there is, say, with the Solemnity of Mary falling on New Year's Day, Mass attendance on Ascension Thursday in western dioceses, they say, is markedly lower than on Sundays.

Moreover, Western bishops reply that the higher concentration of priests on the East Coast allowed the clerical burdens consequent to a midweek holy day of obligation to be more spread out in the East than in the West. They also pointed to confusion among the high numbers of immigrant Catholics living in Western states, most of whom come from countries, such as Mexico, where the Ascension is already observed on a Sunday.

James Akin, a senior apologist at Catholic Answers Inc., in San Diego, expressed the concern of many observers by noting that, without adequate preparation for a transfer of the Ascension Thursday observance, the change could come across as “a piecemeal capitulation to modern standards of convenience.”

He noted that “denominations which expect the most from their members tend also to get the highest levels of participation and commitment from them. If a feast as significant as the Ascension is moved, it will make it harder to maintain other midweek holy days of obligation.”

‘Denominations which expect the most from their members tend also to get the highest levels of participation and commitment from them. If a feast as significant as the Ascension is moved, it will make it harder to maintain other midweek holy days of obligation.’

Although the 1983 Code of Canon Law, much like the 1917 Code, sets forth 10 universal holy days of obligation, it allows episcopal conferences, with prior Vatican approval, to abolish various holy days or to transfer their observance to a Sunday.

Following canon law, the U.S. bishops long ago lifted the obligation of Mass attendance from the feast of St. Joseph (March 19) and from the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29), and transferred the observance of both Corpus Christi (Thursday after Trinity Sunday) and the Epiphany (Jan. 6) to a Sunday.

More recently, they decided, with Vatican approval, to lift the obligation of Mass attendance on the Solemnity of Mary (Jan. 1), the Assumption (Aug. 15), and All Saints' (Nov. 1) whenever those days fell on a Saturday or Monday. Only Christmas (Dec. 25) and the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8) remain obligatory throughout the United States.

One factor which might have shifted some votes toward recent endorsement of the optional transfer proposal could have been the fact that, almost immediately following the bishops' conference approval of a national unified policy on the observance of holy days in the United States in the early 1990s, the Vatican granted an indult to five Western U.S. provinces allowing them to transfer the observance of Ascension to the Sunday following the traditional Thursday. This permission was granted on an experimental basis for a period of five years and, although it recently expired, it was in place long enough for Western bishops to assess the impact of a transferred observance in their areas.

Assuming Vatican approval of the proposal, it will then be up to the diocesan bishops in each province to decide, by a majority vote, on the time for observance of the feast of the Ascension in the entire province.

Under this plan, the archbishop of a given province will not make the decision for all of his suffragan dioceses, but rather the vote of the majority of diocesan bishops (though not auxiliary bishops) will bind all dioceses in the province. Moreover, since the vote of the bishops will be entirely discretionary, and since the subject matter of the vote seems clearly to be a matter “which pertains to the good of the Church,” it can be expected that many individual members of the faithful will communicate their preferences to their diocesan bishops in accord with their freedom of expression on such issues protected in Canon 212 of the 1983 Code.

In those provinces which adopt the Sunday transference of Ascension Thursday, the entire liturgy of Ascension, and not just the obligation of Mass attendance, will be transferred. In other words, those faithful who attend Mass on the 40th day following Easter will not, in provinces adopting the transfer option, hear the liturgy of Ascension Thursday on that day. They will hear instead a regular “ferial” day liturgy or perhaps the liturgy of a saint or blessed whose feast day happens to fall on that date. The actual liturgy of the Ascension will have been transferred to the following Sunday.

Catholics who live in provinces which do retain the Ascension Thursday obligation will be bound in conscience to attend Mass on that day, subject only to the usual factors which might excuse Mass attendance on Sundays and other holy days. If such Catholics find themselves outside of their territories, however, and in a place which does not observe Ascension on a Thursday, they are not bound to attend Mass that day.

On the other hand, Catholics who live in provinces that do adopt the transferred observance policy need not attend Mass on what was Ascension Thursday, of course. And even if they find them themselves in a territory which does observe Ascension on a Thursday, they will not be bound to attend Mass that day (Canon 13).

Regardless of the eventual outcome of the Ascension Thursday question, the debate over the place of midweek holy days of obligation is likely to continue for some time.

Edward Peters, a canon and civil lawyer, writes from San Diego.